Review: Hilton London Tower Bridge

18 02 2009

We stayed at the Hilton London Tower Bridge for 5 nights on our visit to London in November.  This Hilton is located on the South Bank of London and is primarily a business hotel.  However, it can be a good alternative for visitors who do not want to pay Central London prices and still stay in a very nice hotel that is close enough.  

Despite being across the river from Central London, the Hilton London Tower Bridge proved to be a very convenient location primarily because it is only two short blocks away from the London Bridge tube/railway/bus station.   The London Bridge station is only one railway stop away from Charing Cross / Trafalgar Square and one tube stop from Bank Station in the business district (“the city”).  In addition, there is a Marks & Spencer mini mart in the same square as the hotel, which is really convenient for breakfast foods, newspapers, snacks, and some groceries.  The area felt safe and I was comfortable walking to and from the station by myself.

Check-in was easy and all the staff we interacted with were friendly and helpful.  


The actual accomodations were stylish and comfortable.  The room was moderately sized by London standards and included all the expected amenities, such as high speed internet (for sale in 24 hour increments) and a flat screen TV.  


The bathroom was chic and clean and included both a shower and a tub.  After staying at a variety of places overseas, I no longer take this for granted!  Shower pressure was excellent.

Overall we had a very nice stay at the Hilton London Tower Bridge and I would recommend it.  The hotel does not have much character nor is it particularly London-y but its rates are usually reasonable for this class of accommondation.  

I have listed more transportation details below.  London has an extremely useful transit website at , which has maps, updates, a trip planner, and other information.  I used it frequently and would highly recommend checking it out.  The London Bridge station is large and complicated, but basically the tube station is on the 1st floor and the rail station is on the 2nd floor.  You can buy tickets from ticket windows or machines and the employees at the station are very helpful.  Generally, an Oyster card is worth it but note that it doesn’t cover railway tickets.

To Trafalgar Square:

From London Bridge Railway Station (2nd Floor), take the Southern towards Charing Cross.  After crossing the Thames River, alight at Charing Cross, which is at the SW end of Trafalgar Square.  Incidentally, Charing Cross station is just one short block from Embankment station, which is on the Circle and District Lines that go around all the sights in Central London.

To Bank/Monument:

From London Bridge Tube Station, take the Northern line North (end of line differs by train, but any one going North will work) for one stop.  Disembark at Bank/Monument.


London at Night

13 02 2009

One of the questions many travelers have is what to do in London at night.  After a certain hour, most shops, landmarks, and museums are closed.  Although we didn’t get to do it this time around, my suggestion is to see the theatre!  (Notice I didn’t say theater. )  Besides the experience of seeing a play in London, many famous actors who may not do it anywhere else like to stretch their talent in London.  There are plenty of shows at Covent Garden to choose from, and even last minute half price tickets.  The official half price tickets booth is called TKTS and is located at the bottom of Leicester Square.  Be sure to check out the TKTS booth before 7 PM Monday through Saturday and 3 PM on Sundays.  Beware of imitators.    

Piccadilly Circus at night.

Besides the theater, there are dozens of restaurants of all sorts to sample.  From gastropubs to authentic Indian and Pakistani restaurants, to gourmet cuisine, London has it all.  Check out Time Out London and Zagat for recommendations.  After dinner, bars, clubs, and pubs await those who want to extend their night out.

Big Ben at night makes me think of Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.

Well, this is the end of my series of posts on London.  While this time I focused on seeing the landmarks and using tours for day trips, this is by no means the only way to see London.  In fact, I am really looking forward to going back to London without the pressure of the must-sees.  I cannot wait to come back and explore the neighborhoods I didn’t get to see by foot.  There are museums to see, theater to enjoy, dozens of beautiful castles calling my name, and of course more tea and crumpets for me to consume.

Food Halls Around the World

11 02 2009

Whenever I am shopping while abroad, I inevitably find myself in a food hall. At the most basic level, a food hall is any indoor area that offers a variety of food for sampling and purchasing. They are often found in department stores, but can also operate independently.  A food hall is more than an indoor market or run of the mill mall food court, however.  A food hall is above all an exhibition of local and international artisinal food.

Harrod’s famous food hall
The most famous food hall in the world is arguably Harrod’s in London. While for many destinations I end up in a food hall by coincidence, Harrod’s Food Hall was a must-see for me even before my arrival in London. Harrod’s was founded in 1834 as a wholesale grocery with a specialty in tea.

Harrod’s has some of the fanciest groceries I have ever seen.

There are lots of stands to try out at Harrod’s Food Hall.

After arriving at Harrod’s, I bypassed all other departments and made a beeline for the food hall. There’s better shopping in the United States. I was here for the food hall. I was not disappointed. In room after themed room, attractive gourmet food was presented to me, the shopper, for my perusal. If you want seafood, there is an entire room dedicated to these delicious creatures under the sea.

You can eat fresh oysters in the seafood room at Harrod’s food hall.

Need gifts for loved ones? Harrod’s has quite a selection of packaged ready to gift gourmet food items. Perhaps some proper English tea would delight your grandmother, or lemon cookies for your best friend, or Turkish Delight for your unsuspecting brother!

Food gifts at Harrod’s

Indulge your sweet tooth at Harrod’s.

Before heading out, be sure to view the over the top escalators at Harrod’s. The escalators have an ancient Egyptian theme to honor the heritage of Mohamed al Fayed, the current owner of the department store. The escalator bay is also where you can find Princess Diana’s and Dodi al Fayed’s memorial.

The Egyptian decor is historically listed to protect against their removal and alteration.

Yep, that’s the actual face of Mohamed al Fayed on the Sphinx.

Despite Harrod’s fame, to many English residents the designation of best department store for gourmet food would belong to Fortnum & Mason, which has held royal warrants for 150 years. Harrod’s also holds some royal warrants, but Fortnum & Mason is more closely associated with British royalty and the peerage.

The circular stairway at Fortnum & Mason decorated for Christmas.

Although we had heard of Fortnum & Mason, it was by chance that we stumbled upon this establishment while shopping near Piccadilly Circus. I thought we had entered my version of department store heaven. Exquisitely decorated for Christmas, Fortnum and Mason offered all kinds of British foodstuffs, from minced pies to jars of ribbon candy to traditional china. Fortnum & Mason is most well known for its teas and luxury picnic hampers.

A selection of Fortnum and Mason’s gourmet products with its signature turquoise label on display.

Fortnum & Mason’s food hall is not to be missed for foodies the world over!

Inside Fortnum and Mason during the Christmas season.

These two luxurious food halls reminded me of my visit to the highly regarded Alois Dallmayr in Munich, Germany.  The Dallmayr is a famous luxury delicatessen and food hall that has served European royalty since the 17th century.  You can read about our day in Munich and see some more photos of Dallmayr here.  

Alois Dallmayr plaque proclaiming its status as a royal purveyor.

Window display at Alois Dallmayr.

Inside Alois Dallmayr delicatessen.

Inspired by these elaborate European food halls, the Japanese created their own twist on the concept with depachikas, department store basement food halls. Similar to the Harrod’s concept, depachikas seek to create a high end retail experience, but for food. Only the best brands are offered, from sushi to desserts to mochi to tea and other delicacies. However, depachikas have a larger selection of freshly prepared takeaway meals for shoppers. Many professional stop by and pick up bento boxes for lunch and dinner on a daily basis. Another major difference is that Japanese department stores often directly rent out the spaces on the store floor to bakeries and food businesses. As a result, the salespeople of these kiosks do not necessarily work for the department store. These businesses of course have to pass a rigorous test of quality and name. A third distinction is that Japanese food halls tend to emphasize trendy food over more traditional flavors.  You can read all about the depachika craze in this Food and Wine magazine article.  

The Dessert comes First blog has an excellent post on food in Japan, including an entire section on depachikas with fantastic pictures.  Here is the link to that specific post.  I have included two of her photos below for reference. 

Photo of depachika by Desserts comes First

Photo of depachika store display by Desserts comes First

I have visited the depachika in person at Isetan in Tokyo and Kaohsiung.  You can read my entire post about the Isetan department store in Kaohsiung here. These basement food halls are one of my favorite places to just relax and eat. I wish the US had places like these – I would be there every night!

One of the stores within a store in the basement food hall at Isetan in Kaohsiung.

A bakery in the basement food hall at Isetan

Castles and Cathedrals

3 02 2009

Since my mother-in-law is an architectural historian specializing in churches, we decided to take another bus tour in order to see Canterbury Cathedral.  If you have been following this series on London, you may have noticed that our sightseeing has been slanted toward history and architecture for this trip.  This is part of the reason why we did more tours than usual.  We were also interested in seeing some more castles and the Cliffs of Dover, so we decided to take a tour that visited Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, and Dover.  These three sights are often grouped together for touring purposes because they are all located to the east of London.

Leeds Castle

Our first stop was Leeds Castle, a lovely castle in Kent.  While not a major castle, Leeds has a history as a royal residence and is a fine example of a moated castle.  The castle grounds include a museum and several gardens, an aviary, dog collar museum, maze, conference center and other attractions.  You can even have a wedding here!  

The grounds of Leeds Castle were graced with Black Swans.

Although a manor stood there before the Norman conquest, the first stone fortifications date back to the 1100s.   

Ruined parts of the older fortification at Leeds Castle.

Edward I and his queen Eleanor of Castille lived there in the 1200s, making it a royal palace. From that point forward, royalty occasionally resided there, including several queens. The castle was often used as a stopover for trips to and from the Continent, including a famous visit by Henry VIII before his meeting with Francis I in France in 1520. You can read more of the history of the castle here.

Leeds Castle

After the middle ages, the castle eventually passed into the hands of private owners and was purchased by the Culpeper family. The Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, the last private owner of Leeds Castle remodeled the castle into a gracious home and created a private foundation for the maintenance of the castle. Today, the foundation owns and operates the castle.

Leeds Castle

Inside the museum, there are guides in every room. You can ask them any questions you would like. I found the medieval parts of the castle much more interesting than the remodeled gracious home sections.

I did appreciate this sun filled library, though.

The maze was interesting as a novelty. Since I had never been inside a hedge maze, I had to go in and see. We met one of the other people in our tour group at the entrance to the maze. Apparently, he had been stuck in the maze for 25 minutes! Fortunately, a kindly tourguide offered to lead us through the maze since we were short on time and needed to get back to the bus. At the center of the maze is a cheesy “grotto” with some lit up monsters and mermaids. 

While historically Leeds was a relatively minor royal castle, we still enjoyed our visit here. The castle and grounds are beautifully kept and maintained, the guides welcoming and informative, and it was lovely to just stroll around and enjoy the romantic environs. I could definitely see myself living here. Oops, did I say that out loud?

After Leeds Castle and a brief forgettable lunch, we drove to the city of Canterbury to view its famous Cathedral. As the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England, this structure is the most important cathedral in all of Britain.

Entrance to Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral is also famous for being the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and the pilgrims who visited his shrine as told in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The site of the martyrdom of Beckett.

Outside of its historical and religious significance, the cathedral itself is magnificent. Canterbury Cathedral was founded in 602 AD by St. Augustine and dedicated to St. Savior. Over the centuries, successive archbishops extended and added onto the main structure. Fires and raids also prompted new designs through the centuries.

The cathedral has both Norman and Gothic architectural styles incorporated within its design.

The nave at Canterbury Cathedral

The ceiling at Canterburgy Cathedral

View of the choir at Canterbury Cathedral

Personally, I found the Norman crypt the most beautiful and intriguing part of the tour, but pictures are not allowed.  Down below ground, the crypt was dark, quiet, and very still.   There are small chapels within the crypt where you can see faded paintings on the walls that date back a thousand years. It was truly a humbling experience.

Our final destination on the tour was the town of Dover, home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. Dover is geographically the closest part of England to France, and located just across the Channel from Calais.

View of the seashore in Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

Dover Castle

We viewed Dover just as the sun started to go down.  It was a peaceful way to end our day.

The English Countryside in Autumn

29 01 2009

As fans of English literature and culture, my travel companion D (my mother in law) and I felt that a trip to England would not be complete without a tour of the countryside. We wanted to see the fields of sheep, quaint cottages, parish churches, manor houses, and places of learning that featured so prominently in all the novels we’ve read and shows we’ve seen. That is, we wanted to see more of England’s pleasant pastures and mountains green and less of its Satanic mills.

A charming view of a Cotswold farm with fields of sheep in the background.

As non-drivers who didn’t have a lot of time, the surprising choice for us was the bus tour. We originally wanted to do a tour that provided a tour guide, used trains, and took us to fewer sights (so we can spend more time at them) but the tour operators were not running that tour when we were there in November.

Seeing Oxford, the oldest English speaking university in the world, was a must for us!

Magnificent Gothic architecture at Oxford.

Old buildings blend with those that are not so old at Oxford.

Although I am usually not a big proponent of bus tours, sometimes it is the only viable option. I try to avoid bus tours in general because they are usually expensive, crowded, and on a set schedule. I never feel like I have enough time to see what I want to see. In addition, being part of a mob and/or only seeing something through a window isolates you from the places you visit. You only see what the tour company wants you to see, and that may or may not be true to the place.

We were only able to take a quick peek at the town of Oxford.

However, if you are short on time, cannot drive, and absolutely want to see something, even if it’s just a glimpse, sometimes it is your best (and only) option. Bus tours do have some positives; they usually provide tour guides, they are great for inexperienced solo travelers, and you will not get lost. In addition, some tour companies really put in the time and effort to make a well rounded experience, such as themed tours. If you are picky about what type of tour you choose, you can minimize the bad parts and make the best of your trip.

Radcliffe Camera, the most photographed library on campus.

A guide will explain why there are 38 different colleges at Oxford and how they are organized. They will tell you where famous movies were filmed. They will attempt to explain architectural details.  They will make cheesy jokes.


According to our guide, this was Tolkien’s Room at Exeter College.

One of the many libraries at Oxford. They filmed scenes from the Harry Potter movies here.

We ended up choosing a mini-bus tour (maximum 12 persons) of Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. I actually didn’t want to go to Stratford-upon-Avon since I had already seen it and thought it was overrated. Also a third location meant less time at the other two. However, there was not an option that excluded it. We chose the mini-bus over the huge tour bus primarily because it could navigate the tiny lanes in the Cotswold towns but also because it avoided the huge crowds/mob feeling.

A gorgeous home in Stow-on-the-Wold.

We stopped by a gourmet market in Stow-on-the-Wold. Too bad we only had 10 minutes.

Another positive of small groups was that the tour guide could make small adjustments to his or her commentary and itinerary to suit our interests. For instance, when our guide heard that my travel companion was interested in historic churches, we decided to explore the parish church in the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

An atmospheric church in Stow-on-the Wold.

The fascinating graveyard of the parish church in Stow-on-the-Wold.

Another view of the graveyard.

After seeing Oxford and exploring Stow-in-the-Wold, we had lunch in the town center.

View from the town center of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Another view of Stow-on-the-Wold.

This fish pie was as delicious as it looks!

I wish we could have stayed at a B&B like this in the Cotwolds.

After lunch, we drove around the Cotswolds some more. We stopped at Lower Slaughter and walked up to Upper Slaughter. These village names sound much more bloody then they are. Slaughter actually derives from “slough” meaning wet land.

Homes along a stone wall in Lower Slaughter.

Peeking into a quaint house in Lower Slaughter.

Autumn Leaves in Lower Slaughter.

I love the sheep on the hill.

View of Upper Slaughter from Lower Slaughter.

Church in Upper Slaughter.

Driving out of Upper Slaughter.

After a scenic drive around the Cotswolds, we then proceeded onto the final part of the journey. We were actually running late, but still managed to be the last group into Shakespeare’s birthplace. This worked out quite well since we ended up having a private tour given by a Scottish Laird!

Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Harry Pottermania can be seen all over England.

Although travel doesn’t always go as planned, compromises are not so bad if you do your research.  In this case, a mini-bus tour served our needs quite wonderfully despite our reservations about bus travel.  We were able to see the Cotswolds and didn’t have to worry about transportation.  Now whenever I read British novels that feature pastures, villages,  and universities, I don’t have to imagine.  I can just remember.

Tower of London and Anne Boleyn

21 01 2009

In preparation for this particular London trip, I read Phillipa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, to get myself in the right frame of mind for seeing historic London.  Although historical fiction is often far from fact, it helps bring history and old intrigues alive.  As is apparent from the title of the novel, The Other Boleyn Girl  is the story of the two popular Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, who charmed Henry VIII as mistress and wife, respectively, before their family’s dramatic fall from power after Anne is executed for treason at the Tower of London.  The Boleyn legacy lived on, however, through Anne’s daughter, who eventually became Queen Elizabeth I.  

As usual, it was cloudy on the day we visited the Tower of London.

The Tower of London is one of England’s most famous landmarks because of its turbulent and bloody history.  Henry VIII was just one of many English rulers who used this fortification, although he is arguably the most famous infamous.  While the innermost White Tower was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London as it stands today is quite a large complex of buildings and fortifications built over several hundred years. There is even a moat, although it is dry now. Our tourguide indicated, however, that there is a rumor that the city of London may fill the moat for the 2012 Olympics.

The old moat at the Tower of London is now filled with grass.

When the moat was still in operation in the middle ages, it connected directly to the River Thames. In fact, most prisoners entered the Tower of London by boat through Traitor’s Gate, which leads into St. Thomas’s tower. Princess Elizabeth herself was brought into the Tower complex via this entrance after her half sister Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) sent her here as a prisoner. Elizabeth was treated well in the Tower despite being a prisoner, however, because she was next in line for the throne after Mary.

Traitor’s Gate

The Tower of London has served over the years as a royal residence, fortress, and most famously as a political prison for high status individuals and royalty. In addition, the Tower was the actual site where the most important executions were performed. As a result, a tour of this landmark is quite gruesome. This makes sense, as the Tower was the site of involuntary confinement, political intrique, torture and execution.

Famous involuntary guests of the Tower included Kings of Scotland, Wales, and France, several princes of England, even supposed Kings of England, and of course Queen Elizabeth before she was queen. The succession of the throne of England was always in flux because there were often several heirs, which made everyone involved paranoid. As a result, whoever ended up in power would often lock up their enemies, especially if they were siblings who could usurp their power.

The Tower also hosted non-royal prisoners, including Thomas More.  More was a former friend of Henry VIII who was executed after he refused to sign a document making Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Another prisoner of the Tower was Sir Walter Raleigh, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Raleigh was sent to the Tower after he secretly married one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting without permission. Fortunately Raleigh and his wife and family were able to live in the Tower in comfort, as the crime he committed was not treasonous. Raleigh was later imprisoned again under James I, however, and beheaded for invading a Spanish city in the New World.

At the center of the Tower is the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex. Today, it is a fine example of Norman architecture and houses an exhibition of arms and armor. Honestly, I found this part of the tour a little boring. The most interesting part was an exhibit of Henry VIII’s armor, which showcased just how rotund this king was in his middle age.

The White Tower

View from the White Tower. Notice London’s new city hall, dubbed “Lord Vader’s Helmet” for obvious reasons.

Henry VIII’s Battle Armor

What I found far more interesting were the spooky interiors and staircases in the White Tower.

Norman Chapel inside the White Tower

Staircase in the White Tower

Once we got back outside, we saw much more interesting sights. First, we viewed the Royal Crown Jewels. No photos were allowed inside, of course. I considered this a must-see though! My favorite was Queen Victoria’s little crown.

Building housing the British Crown Jewels, as seen from the White Tower.

Guarding the Crown Jewels

After the jewels, we visited the courtyard where executions were carried out.  Only the most important prisoners of the highest status were executed here.  You knew you had “made it” in society if you died here.  As the queen of England, Anne Boleyn was executed here and buried in the church on the perimeter of the courtyard.  We didn’t go in the church, however, because you have to pay extra.

Execution site with the church in the background.

Medieval buildings surrounded the other side of the courtyard. The building in the corner was built for Anne Boleyn as her wedding present from Henry VIII. Nowadays, the yeoman warders live in these buildings. It’s a little known fact that people still live in the Tower of London. The church is also still used regularly.

Anne Boleyn’s residence

The Tower of London is easily accessible by Tube (Stop: Tower Hill) and is one of the major stops on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours.  We toured the Tower complex with London Walks, meeting at Tower Hill.  Our tourguide was very good, telling us both the history and lore surrounding this fortress.

While Anne Boleyn’s story is riveting, it also demonstrated quite dramatically how much power the English rulers had before the 20th century.  The mood and whim of the king could literally mean life or death for you, even if you are his wife.  Henry VIII went from being madly in love with Anne, even restructuring religious power in England so that he could marry her, to wanting to behead her when she was unable to produce a son.  Although walking in her footsteps on my visit to the Tower of London was exciting, I am glad that I did not have to live her life, even if she was queen.

Walking Old London

16 01 2009

One of the many ways to enjoy London is to go on a guided walk.  This way, you get to see the city at walking speed with a knowledgeable guide without wasting time getting lost.  A walking tour takes you through all the nooks and crannies in London, of which there are many.  Even if you have already seen a particular part of London, these tours can uncover yet another layer of this complex city.

On our first full day, we decided to take the Old London: the Medieval to Georgian walking tour with Hilary of London Walks. The tour was first rate and our guide was excellent.  Hilary led us on a loop concentrating on the area know as “the city,” the original city of London before it subsumed Westminster and other neighboring areas. 

The first stop of our walking tour was this Roman wall that was surrounded by modern buildings. Did you know that modern London is built right on top of old Roman Londoninium? If you look over the railing you see in the photo below, you can look down 14 feet to the bottom of the Roman street.  As a result, every building project in London needs to stop immediately if after breaking ground the workers find any historic objects until their significance can be ascertained.  This wall was sitting right next to a high rise hotel.  We would never have found this especially choice section of the wall without Hilary.

A remnant of old Londinium is surrounded by modern London.

The next stop on our walk was St. Olave’s Church, a tiny medieval church that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Charles Dickens was so inspired by the grinning skulls over the churchyard entrance that he included it in his literary collection “Uncommercial Traveler,” calling it St. Ghastly Grim.

St. Olave’s Church, a medieval country church in the big city of London.

St. Olave’s was also the church regularly attended by the essayist Samuel Pepes, famed for his encrypted private diary chronicling first hand the happenings of the Restoration period, including Great Fire of London.

Samuel Pepes and our tourguide Hilary.

Most of medieval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, including 87 parish churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The fire itself started at Thomas the baker’s house on Pudding Lane and through a combination of wind conditions, poor decisionmaking by the lord mayor, and ineffective medieval firefighting techniques, a small flame became a conflagration that decimated the city.

The Great Fire of London began on Pudding Lane and ended on Pye Corner. Was it a dessert conspiracy?
There are several competing stories about how the fire started, but somehow Thomas the baker was not held responsible in any of them.  Instead, the blame was placed on the French and the Catholics.   What was not uncertain, however, was the fact that the Great Fire changed the course of London’s architectural history.  Among other things, flammable building materials such as wood and straw were prohibited thereafter in the city.  The Great Fire also propelled the career of the architect Sir Christopher Wren to the greatest heights.  Wren was the architect commissioned to design nearly all the parish churches destroyed by the fire, including his crowning glory, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Monument to the Great Fire of London, commissioned by Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. The tube stop is named after it, and it is currently being restored to its full glory.

After speaking about the Great Fire, Hilary led us through a series of beautiful Wren designed churches that finally culminated in his most famous work, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We walked through this beautiful ruined Wren Church that was transformed into a peaceful garden in the middle of the city.

In between Wren churches, we saw some wonderful examples of modern London architecture.

A modern interpretation of Gothic architecture.

Incidentally, this building was used as Cruella de Ville’s base in the 101 Dalmations movie.

KFC Telephone Booth

A London street built after the Great Fire.

We saw several churches that demonstrated key developments of Wren’s design style, from the simpler church built for a poorer parish to St. Stephen Walbrook, Wren’s own parish church and said to be one of his finest creations.  While plain looking from the outside, the interior of St. Stephen Walbrook is said to be one of the most perfect buildings in the world.  The dome was the one originally designed for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The dome at St. Stephen Walbrook.

Interior of St. Stephen Walbrook, Sir Christopher Wren’s own parish church.

Henry Moore’s modern stone altar in St. Stephen Walbrook.

Another interior shot of St. Stephen Walbrook.

After seeing the churches Wren “practiced on” we were finally led to his greatest creation, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  But first we walked through some pretty side streets.

This is so clean!

Pheasants in the window of a butcher shop.

Our tour ended with this wonderful view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Since it was around 4:30 PM at this point, Hilary suggested to the group that we stop for some tea at a local shop and then go to Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which starts at 5 PM on weekdays.  We took her suggestion and had the most perfect ending to our walking tour.  

St. Paul’s Cathedral at twilight.

Evensong at St. Paul’s was simply divine.  Hearing the angelic voices of the choir in the most magnificent cathedral I’ve ever seen made it one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  In my opinion, St. Paul’s is more beautiful than the Notre Dame or Canterbury Cathedral, although they are also splendid.  Admittance to evensong is free.  If you choose to attend the entire service, you can sit near the front past the ushers.  If you only have time to listen for a few minutes, you have the option of staying near the back of the cathedral.  I believe the service lasts about one hour.

I highly recommend London Walks, a tour company that employs certified Blue Badge guides to take you on a myriad of different themed walks for only 7 pounds each.  This company has specialized tours by neighborhood and theme, from the Beatles to Literary Bloomsbury to Old London history to Jack the Ripper night tours.  They even have wallet friendly Explorer Days that take you on day trips outside the city, supplying you with guides but saving money by using public transportation and trains.  We took two of these walking tours, and they were both great.  We thought Hilary was the best tourguide for our entire trip.

London, England, U.K.

14 01 2009

London, England is quite possibly my favorite city in the world.  For me, it has just the right combination of history, culture, architecture, lore and good public transportation.  Where else do finance types get to have their after work drinks in the same gloomy pub that was frequented by Charles Dickens and has been around since the 1500s?  In what other city can you find the most beautiful cathedral in the world built by the venerable Sir Christopher Wren?  And what other country has spawned so many literary classics and wonderful authors, from Jane Austen to J.K. Rowling to Neil Gaiman to Diana Wynne Jones?  Not to mention the fantastic television programs!

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this group in Trafalgar Square! These actors were promoting Monty Python’s new DVD box set.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

As you may be able to tell from the photo above, I was in London this past November for about a week.  Although I have previously been to this historic city, it was over 10 years ago when I was a clueless student.  In that trip, I had done the typical touristy London in 2 days tour, where our school group sailed through all the major sites in one day on a bus, my friend was pickpocketed in Oxford, we trudged through a museum with no background, and it rained every day.  That is not how to do London and its environs and I do not recommend it.  

My first glimpse of Big Ben from Trafalgar Square.

What I do recommend is to take at least 3-4 days to really see London.  Even with one week, we felt we did not have nearly enough time to do everything we wanted.  I do feel that we were able to do the city a little more justice this time though.  We were able to just walk around Central London and explore, which is really the only way to get to know any city.  We still participated in tours and did the major landmarks, of course, but we did it on our terms, took our time, and had frequent breaks for tea.  It did rain, but it didn’t hold us back!

Big Ben is really beautiful up close.

Westminster Abbey

Covent Garden

I love how in London almost everyone calls you “love,” speaks with interesting accents, and likes to take tea and scones at 4 PM.  

Having a mini cream tea at TEA.

The fish and chips and Indian/Pakistani food are divine, and in fact the culinary world has improved immeasurably in the last decade.

Restaurants on Brick Lane, London’s Little India.

The best Pakistani food I’ve ever had in my life was at LaHore.

Lahore Kebab House is on Umberton Street right off Commercial Rd. The tube stop is Aldgate East.  The immediate area is deserted at night, so make sure you know where you are going before starting out!

When you travel on your own schedule, you can stop at places like this Cornish Pasty Bakehouse on a whim. Yummy!

One of several interesting things to see on Fleet Street.

I love the side streets of this old city.  I wish I could have walked down every interesting side street I saw.

Side street off Whitehall.

Side street in the Old City of London.

This quaint street is straight out of a movie.

In some places, it’s not difficult to imagine London in the middle ages, when rats and the Black Death reigned.

Anne Boleyn’s residence in the Tower of London complex.

A shop on Fleet Street.  We didn’t see any demon barbers though.

And where else can you stumble on the most surreal scenes? On one of our last nights, we were walking towards St. Paul’s Cathedral when we saw this eerily beautiful carnival.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

A carnival next to St. Paul’s Cathedral

In London, it’s as if every street name, street corner, and building has some historic or literary significance.  Since this is the city where so many things originated, this should be unsurprising. I cannot help being amazed, however, when I am standing in the tube stations of Richard Mayhew’s adventures in London Below, or listening to the angelic voices at Evensong in St. Paul’s Cathedral, or gazing at the London Eye, where the Nestene Consciousness took up residence in Doctor Who, or standing in the place where Anne Boleyn triumphed and fell in her quest for the throne.  I suppose for me the best part of London is that it stirs my imagination and brings to life so many novels and history lessons I’ve loved.

Review: Hotel Kurcafe in Füssen

22 10 2008

On the night before we visited Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles, we stayed in the town of Füssen at Hotel Kurcafe.  We decided to book this hotel because of good reviews from both Rick Steves and Tripadvisor.  We had high hopes for this hotel because of these reviews.  Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the service and accommodations.

First, let me start with the positives from our stay.  Our initial impression of the hotel was very positive.  The location in the town of Füssen was very convenient, the room was very clean, and the hotel seemed very nice in general.  In addition, there is a parking lot right next to the hotel and we were able to park for a nominal fee.  The room’s decor was fine and looked comfortable, although we were amused by the sexy picture above the bed.

Now I will get into the negatives.  First, when we checked in, the woman at the front desk was very brisk to the point of rudeness and made us feel like we were imposing by staying at this hotel.  I have stayed in many 4-5 star hotels, and this kind of treatment is unacceptable, especially at a hotel that bills itself as 4 stars.  In addition, the woman at reception only gave us one room card for all four of us.  She only gave us another key after we specifically requested it when we went out to dinner later that evening.  I will point out that this woman was the only person at the hotel who was rude, and everyone else we encountered were very friendly, courteous, and professional.

Second, the room we were assigned differed from the one that was advertised.  We booked a four person family room at Hotel Kurcafe.  As we booked online directly through the hotel, we expected to get the room advertised as the family room for four people as you can see here.  In the picture shown for this room, there are what look like two queen size beds side by side.  Instead, we received Room 10, which has one queen size bed and a pull out sofabed.  If they had advertised the room as a queen bed with a sofabed, we would not have chosen this room.  Since it was past 7 PM when we checked in, we decided to make the best of it.  However, in the middle of the night, the sofabed became unhinged and broke.  Thus it ended up being a very uncomfortable night.  Since it was after midnight at that point, we tried to fix it ourselves and ended up being able to put it back half hinged.  We found that if we did not move at all the sofa would stay hinged and in one piece.  As you can imagine, this made it a bad night for us.

The bathroom was very modern and chic.  However, since the door was see through, it was not very suitable for a room for four people.  I do not fault the design, per se, as I found the aesthetics pleasing, but this room is clearly a two person room.

We were very pleased with the continental breakfast served the next morning.  The hotel had a full spread of both cold and hot breakfast foods, including bacon, eggs, bread, toast, and other typical items in addition to fancier fare like chocolate covered strawberries.  Like many European hotel breakfasts, you must order your coffee and cappucinos from the server (although it’s all included). 

When we checked out, we made sure to let the hotel know of our displeasure with the sofabed.  The lady at the reception (a different person from the night before) was very apologetic and courteous, which we appreciated.  She deducted 20 euros from the room rate and gave us a small bag of truffles for our trouble.

In summary, if you are looking to book a four person room at this hotel, be very careful of what you select.  Definitely request that you not be put in Room 10.  Since the other reviews from Tripadvisor are generally positive, though, I hope that our experience was isolated.

Germany: Neuschwanstein

21 10 2008

After leaving Rothenburg, we were eager to continue our journey on Germany’s Romantic Road and see “Mad” King Ludwig’s famous Neuschwanstein Castle.  Easily the most photographed castle in Germany, Neuschwanstein is the epitome of the modern day idea of a (very unrealistic) romantic medieval castle.  In fact, this castle was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland and Cinderella’s castles in Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.  We had high expectations for this attraction because of its fame and dramatic history.

A view of the countryside approaching Füssen and Neuschwanstein.

Quaint towns dot the countryside on the Romantic Road.

Neuschwanstein Castle and the neighboring Hohenschwangau Castle are located just outside the town of Füssen in Southwest Bavaria. Füssen is where most people who visit the royal castles stay the night and represents the end of the Romantic Road. The town of Fussen is small but pretty. It is perfectly suited for a nice dinner and lovely stroll before visiting Neuschwanstein the next day but one night is enough. Füssen has its own castle called Hohes Schloss, but it’s not really worth visiting.  You can walk around the outside of the castle at night.

The town of Füssen

Fussen at twilight

Hohes Schloss

For a taste of traditional German food and comraderie, visit one of the local restaurants and drinking establishments in Füssen the night before your visit to the castles. Every Tuesday and Thursday night at 7 PM, the gregarious duo of Christian and Werner entertain the patrons at Gasthof Krone with local music and humor.  While we were there, we heard such classics (translation butchered by me) as “Frau Meyer’s underpants are yellow” and “There’s plenty of time in heaven to rest so let’s drink now.”

Gasthof Krone

Christian and Werner entertain with hilarious tunes and jokes.

The next morning we headed over to see the royal castles.  When you come to visit, you may tour either castle or both. It is best to buy your ticket(s) in advance, either online here or over the phone. You will be given a time window for your tours. If you decide to tour both, the ticket requires that you tour Hohenschwangau first. To get to Neuschwanstein, you can ride a bus, a horse drawn carriage, or hike.

“Mad” King Ludwig, also known as King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was an eccentric king who loved building elaborate castles. Although he used his personal funds to build these palaces, he borrowed heavily from family and other royalty and neglected his royal duties, which made him very unpopular with his ministers. This caused his cabinet of ministers to declare him insane and to legally depose him. The day after his arrest, King Ludwig was found dead in the nearby lake under mysterious circumstances with the psychiatrist who certified him insane.

Ludwig grew up in Hohenschwangau Castle, which was built by his father King Maxmillian II of Bavaria in the early 19th century. Maxmillian built the castle on the ruins of the castle Schwanstein, which dated back to at least the 12th century, after falling in love with the landscape here. While Neuschwanstein is now owned by the Bavarian government, Hohenschwangau still belongs to the former royal family.


The beautiful lake next to Hohenschwangau.

Neuschwanstein Castle, on the other hand, was built by Ludwig II in the late 19th century. The castle is not a true medieval castle since it not built in the middle ages, but rather designed to reflect a romantic and highly fantastical conception of a knight’s castle. In fact, the castle was designed by a theatrical set designer for the most part and not an architect.

Even my first glimpse of Neuschwanstein from Hohenschwangau was romantic.

After touring Hohenschwangau, we took a bus up to Neuschwanstein. While the bus drops you off on the path to Neuschwanstein, it is worth it to hike up to Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge) before you go to Neuschwanstein. It only takes about 20 minutes to go there and back and the views are amazing. I consider the Marienbrucke a must do, because it gives you the best view hands down of Neuschwanstein. This perspective of the castle is what you see in all those tourist photos.

The best view of Neuschwanstein is from Marienbrucke, except for the ugly scaffolding (sigh).

Other views from the Marienbrucke include beautiful forests.

Marienbrucke is a small bridge suspended over these falls.

Every part of the design of Neuschwanstein was carefully planned, from its exact placement on a dramatic hilltop overlooking Ludwig’s childhood home, Hohenschwangau, to its exterior grandeur and fairy tale turrents, to the impressive interior that honored Richard Wagner’s operas.  The castle’s location maximized the beauty of the surroundings as viewed from inside. Photos were not allowed inside either castle, but the views more than made up for that.

Although this attraction is much hyped, we felt that it lived up to its expectations.  Neuschwanstein was every bit as beautiful in person as in the pictures.  While the tours are quite short, they are interesting.  The area’s natural backdrop was stunning and really exceeded our expectations.  We highly recommend that Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau be part of any visitor’s itinerary in Germany.

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